The Flu is one of the most deadly diseases in human history.
In 1918, the “Spanish Flu” pandemic resulted in the death of between 50 and 100 million people, as much as 5% of the entire world’s population. It was the deadliest single-disease pandemic since the bubonic plague. It killed more people than any part of the First World War which immediately preceded it, and it is entirely possible that it killed more people than the First and Second World Wars combined.
The only good thing that came from this horrific period in modern history is the knowledge that the flu can be prevented. Doctors and researchers tried every technique they could to treat the flu pandemic’s patients, but the only treatment that saved the sickest patients was transfusion of blood from patients who had been infected and survived. This knowledge, combined with research in viral growth in embryonic chicken eggs by researcheRs at Vanderbilt University, led to the development of successful vaccines against the flu.
What might surprise you about that Spanish Flu pandemic: it was caused by H1N1, which is still one of the most common strains of influenza contracted by people worldwide. The same flu which killed tens of millions in 2018 is the flu we’re fighting today. The CDC estimates that in US during the 2017-2018 flu season, 49 million people were sick with the flu, 959,000 people were hospitalized, and 79,000 people died. While it’s nothing like 100 years ago, it’s up significantly from prior years. Worldwide, the CDC estimated as many as 646,000 people die every year from the flu.
Why is the death-toll from the flu still so high? Because despite rapidly increasing availability and effectiveness of the flu vaccine since its inception, too many people aren’t being vaccinated. In the 2014-2015 season, by November 5th only 39% of adult Americans reported having been vaccinated. The estimated US death toll of people from the flu for the that year was 51,000, making it the eighth leading cause of death in 2015.
The flu shot keeps people from dying, but it doesn’t work if we all don’t participate.
You might be thinking that if you’re a healthy adult, you don’t have to worry about the flu. You might even remember having at as a kid and it not being so bad. The truth is that the flu doesn’t just kill elderly people, babies, and people with compromised immune systems. Earlier this year Gizmodo reported [you know it’s bad when technology sites are getting in on the public health game], the flu kills young, healthy people. As the article states, the flu killed a 21-year-old body-builder, a 40-year-old marathoner, and an otherwise-healthy 12-year-old boy.
Even if you aren’t in a particularly vulnerable population, the majority of the hundreds of thousands of people who get sick from the flu and tens of thousands who die from it are. And even if you get the flu and it doesn’t kill you, by being a carrier of the virus, you are spreading it to people who might be much sicker or even die from it. The most important thing you can do to prevent the spread of the flu to more vulnerable people is to be vaccinated yourself. The medical skeptic podcast Sawbones did an entire episode about why you should get the flu shot, even if you don’t think you should or need to. Go listen to it if you still aren’t sure!
Here’s how to protect yourself and others from the flu by getting vaccinated.
Okay, so let’s say I’ve convinced [or cajoled, I’ll take cajoled] you to get your flu vaccine. How do you do it? Probably the easiest option is to check with your employer. Most employers with more than a few dozen employees will find a way to provide them. If you have a general practitioner, go to their office. You most likely won’t need an appointment or even to see the practitioner themself. You could also go to just about any pharmacy, including but not limited to: Costco, Walgreens, CVS, Walmart, and Rite-aid. These almost always cost less than $30. Either way, if you have health insurance of any kind in the US, the ACA mandates it pay for your flu vaccine every year at no cost to you (thanks Obama!).
But what if you have no insurance and don’t want to shell out the $30 at the drug store? Go to your local health department. Almost every health department in the US offers flu shots at no costs, at least to children and the elderly. But many are offering this service to adults as well, especially in large urban areas. Chances are that if money is tight, you may also qualify for a government subsidized health insurance plan or expanded medicaid in your state. In that case, like I mentioned, your insurance will cover it. Now go get vaccinated!
I’m not even putting a disclaimer on this. I 100% stand behind this advice as a human being, provider of information, and even as a healthcare professional: you should get a flu shot unless another medical professional has told you that you should not for a very specific reason. It will help to save lives and might even save your own.